Four Options When Government Gets in the Way of Your Dreams

Four Options When Government Gets in the Way

Illustration by Matthew Drake


This article is adapted from a presentation given at FEE and SFL seminars.  Co-authored with James Walpole for The Freeman.


We all want to live free, but we have a problem: governments don’t always want us to.

From seemingly mundane rules (like banning raw milk sales) to the truly horrific (like taking your house from you or throwing you in jail), the state is probably going to mess with you at some point in your life. It will throw taxes and fees and fines and rules at you and erect roadblocks and regulations inhibiting your progress — especially if you’re trying to do something new and innovative.

What can you do?

You do have options. Grave as the stakes may sometimes be, you must first accept this outlook: it’s all a game. If you treat it that way, you’re more likely to find a way forward rather than simply cowering in fear or trembling with anger.

Here, then, are four options when you’re faced with the game of government interference.

1. Play the Game

This is the strategy you’re probably most familiar with. It’s what we’re all encouraged to do. Whether through voting, lobbying, or holding office, you can try to take on the state while playing by its rules. You can try to change it from the inside. This is a strategy we cannot recommend.

In business, this strategy leads to the phenomenon economists call “regulatory capture.” Many companies become involved in lobbying and political action to prevent hostile regulations. It’s understandable. They spend hundreds of thousands of dollars on campaign donations and dinners trying to sway politicians and regulators to delay a vote, join coalitions, or carve out exceptions.

It’s a tough, slow process, one that involves endless compromise of principle and decency, and the few who succeed end up with political power and the ability to gain more. They end up using that power not just to expand their own freedom but to crush the freedom of competitors.

But any changes you make will be temporary. Laws passed in one decade are easily repealed in the next, especially if they limit state power. The bigger loss is a personal one. If you play the game long enough, the game ends up playing you. You become a part of the power structure you were trying to fight.

2. Defy the Game

When the state crushes your dreams, you can fight back. History is full of people who stopped taking oppression for granted and started resisting. Look at the civil rights movement in the United States, the Hungarian revolt against Communist rule, or even Uber’s commercial rebellion.

Today, the ridesharing company is operating illegally in dozens of cities, and it’s already paid hundreds of millions of dollars in fines for its drivers who are caught violating local laws. The company is growing fast enough to absorb the damage, and while governments don’t like Uber, customers love it. In Uber-hostile cities like New York, riders are standing up for their favorite way to get around. The “rebellion” has been a huge success.

But rebellion plays out in more desperate ways in the rest of the political world. For people and companies without the money and reputation of Uber, successfully defying the game is hard. While you can get tremendous satisfaction from sticking it to the man, you might end up in jail. You might be killed. In other words, playing this way means you might run into the real power of the state in its rawest form.

3. Change the Game

Changing the game is about recognizing the incentive structures and putting external pressure on the government to bend. Often, all you need to do to win is to hold the state to its own rules.

But it’s not as easy as it sounds, and the people who try to change the game in this way have to be heroic, if not martyrs. They’re taking the longest route. Game-changers lower the cost of information to the public while raising the cost for government to break its own rules or be thuggish. This group includes lawyers, journalists, public intellectuals, and everyday citizens.

Look at the case of occupational licensing. Municipal and state governments throughout the United States require entrepreneurs to give up money and time to comply with regulations. Many would-be entrepreneurs are stopped dead in their tracks by competition-killing regulations.

Before the Institute for Justice (IJ) challenged the regulation, eyebrow threaders in Texas were required to train for 750 hours before they could set up shop. Before another IJ case in 2011, Texas required bakers wanting to sell cookies to the public to rent commercial kitchen space and obtain food-handling permits.

Changing the game isn’t limited to the courtroom. Governments will break their own rules if they can get away with it. Both IJ cases included concerted efforts to raise public awareness about the unfair consequences of the regulations while simultaneously challenging them in court. These efforts raised the stakes for any judge who wanted to rule for the status quo. It also resulted in politicians jockeying to change the law before the court case was even settled so that they could take credit and benefit from the positive PR. Think about the state lawmakers who jumped at the chance to restrict eminent domain after theKelo outrage.

This is one of the biggest pros of changing the game: if you’re successful, you’ve kept your own integrity, and you’ve helped to protect others from the dream crushers in government.

The problem is that you may not win. You can spend years of your life fighting the battle to change the game and lose — plenty of people have, from the Dred Scott case to the Kelo decision. Even if you do win, the victory is too often short-lived: as soon as public awareness and scrutiny abate, courts will “reinterpret” hard-fought constitutional changes put in place to restrict government.

4. Ignore the Game

Entrepreneurs in the last decade have made international-trade and immigration restrictions less and less important. Today, anyone can telecommute to work in the United States from a call center in India, an Internet cafe in Bangladesh, or a personal laptop in Mexico. These innovations allow labor to move freely, and the inventors never needed to lobby politicians.

You can quit, exit, and opt out of the games government uses to stop you. You can move. You can pull your kids out of school. You can alter your business plan. You can quietly sidestep the obstacles placed before you.

There are major benefits to ignoring the game. For one thing, you don’t have to think about politics. Psychologists and philosophers have long told us to not worry about things not under our control. By ignoring the game, you can be politically ignorant and much happier. You don’t have to fight court battles or Internet comment threads. You can focus on creating, not protesting.

Ignoring the game isn’t always as satisfying as defying it, but ignoring the game offers an immediate sense of personal freedom. It allows you to create a freer life for yourself while providing an example that others can learn from. Over time, if enough people ignore the game, it begins to wane in importance and power.

How Will You Respond?

If your goal is to live free, first understand the game and know the rules. The way you respond to the game is then up to you. The strategy you choose will have more influence over your quality of life than any near-term victory or defeat will.

You may respond to the government in many different ways throughout your life, but if you treat it like a game, it will be less likely to ruin you.

A Tale of Two Cities Part 2: Why People are Dumb at the Ballot Box

This is the sequel to a post about the two spheres we all dwell in – the political and the civil – and how each affect our behavior.

Originally published in The Freeman.

Why do so many San Franciscans want to curb Airbnb’s innovative business model?

Proposition F would have restricted the number of nights owners could list their homes and which types of rooms could be listed; it would also have required a litany of paperwork and reporting to a city department. Listings that did not meet city standards would have incurred fines of up to $1,000 per day. The details are many, but the thrust is obvious: this proposal was to make Airbnb far less successful at creating value for customers and investors.

The proposal ultimately failed, but it wasn’t a landslide. Forty-four percent of voters supported it. Nearly half of the voters in a city that owes its recent prosperity and identity to this kind of innovative company wanted to strangle one of the geese on whose eggs they are feasting.

Most political action is signaling.

The simplest explanation is that proponents of this proposal were the minority of businesses and individuals who are in direct competition with Airbnb — hotels and those working or investing with them. True, but something deeper is at work. A surprising number of investors, entrepreneurs, and everyday residents of the city who are not involved with competing businesses voiced their support for the proposal. Some supporters were even Airbnb investors.

How could this be?

Here are five reasons (by no means an exhaustive list) why people behave so badly in the political realm.

1. Other People’s Problems

Milton Friedman famously described the four ways to spend money. You can spend your own money on yourself, your own money on someone else, someone else’s money on yourself, or someone else’s money on someone else. It’s clear that you’ll be most judicious in the first scenario, and less so in each that follows.

All political issues are a case of the fourth scenario, even when money is not directly involved. You’re voting on the use of resources that aren’t yours — the pool of taxpayer dollars that fund government bureaucracy — to solve someone else’s problem, in this case hoteliers threatened by competition and San Francisco residents supposedly being pushed out of affordable housing.

Ballot initiatives tell us that some people, somewhere, are having some kind of problem — and that we can vote to make it better. It’ll cost you nothing (at least nothing you can see at the moment), so why not?

Not only voters, but also the regulators, enforcers, and drafters of such propositions are so far removed from the issue at hand and have no personal stake in the outcome that it is impossible for them to make decisions or draft policies without unintended consequences.

2. Information Issues

Proposition F is ridiculously complex. To cast a fully informed vote on the Prop F, one would need to begin by reading all 21 pages of legal text. What’s more, the costs of obtaining the information far exceed the probability that your informed vote will be decisive. The result is what economists call “rational ignorance.”

Customers, employees, managers, and investors of Airbnb are best suited to optimize the service. Even the company’s competitors are in an excellent position to curb it or force it to improve if they channel their efforts where the information matters, namely in the markets where they stand to lose or gain.

3. Signaling for Survival

Most political action is signaling. It’s not so much that people want to buy American or recycle everything — we know this because when their own money is on the line in the real world of trade-offs, they mostly don’t. But people want to be seen as the kind of person who buys American or supports recycling. There is tremendous pressure in the political sphere to prove to everyone that you support all the right things — especially things that come at a direct personal cost to you. This proves you care about that abstraction called “society.”

Once control by force is an option, a great deal of otherwise productive energy and otherwise creative people are drawn into the crooked craft of politics.

The best thing a rich person can do in the political sphere is vote for higher taxes on the rich. The best thing an Airbnb investor can do is claim to support regulations that restrict Airbnb. You’ll get lots of cheap signal points, even if what you support would actually be bad for everyone.

4. Binary Choices

Voting is a yes or no affair. The political sphere is incapable of genuine pluralism. Imagine if markets worked the same way. What if your local grocery store sent out a survey asking you to vote on which kind of wine you wanted them to stock, or how much, or at what price (with any losses to be made up by adjusting other prices)?

Can Airbnb be improved? Of course. Can a bunch of people with no control over the outcome and little skin in the game be given an up or down vote on a single policy proposal and make it better? Don’t be silly.

The adaptability, nuance, and diversity of options, offerings, and solutions in a market are the greatest strength and the very stuff on which the startup scene was built. Cramming broad society-wide solutions into binary choices is absurd.

5. The Problem of Power

The infamous Stanford prison experiment didn’t go horribly wrong because the wrong batch of subjects was chosen: it was a case of dangerous institutions and incentives. When rules are enforced by raw power, the person who wields that power has more control than any human being can responsibly handle.

Contrary to Thomas Hobbes, it is not the “state of nature” that is a war of all against all; it is Leviathan that rewards force over cooperation and cultivates the worst traits. Once control by force is an option, a great deal of otherwise productive energy and otherwise creative people are drawn into the crooked craft of politics.

F.A. Hayek wrote at length in The Road to Serfdom about why, in the political sphere, the worst get on top. It’s a predictable outcome of a powerful state.

Democracy doesn’t keep this tendency in check so much as it directs the power toward those who are best able to appeal to the desire of rationally ignorant voters to signal the trendy positions on the latest issues.

Focus on Freedom

The innovative startup founders on the San Francisco scene are an amazing force for good when they are pursuing their own interests within the incentive structure of civil society. Not one of them would remain a positive influence if they were granted monopoly power through the ballot box. Nor would their customers: even the most forward-thinking minds in the most innovative city in the world become petty and stagnant when operating within the confines of the political sphere.

When you act as a consumer and choose which kind of vacation housing to purchase, your action sends information and incentives rippling through the market price system, helping entrepreneurs guide resources to their highest valued use. When you act as a voter to support or reject a policy, you create losers and enemies, and your vote generates a host of destructive effects.

If you want a freer, better world, you’ve got to build it in the private sphere.

A Tale of Two Cities: Civil vs. Political Society

In one city it seems the innovation never ceases.  Bright and talented dreamers from across the globe flock there to build amazing things.  They create solutions to problems both commonplace and incomprehensible.  You can find entrepreneurs and investors working round the clock on everything from entertaining apps to asteroid mining to life extension.  In the past few decades alone the denizens of this city have revolutionized the planet, put massive computing power in everyone’s pocket and all the libraries of the world at the fingertips of the majority of earth’s population.

This city is always looking forward, upward, onward.  It is relentlessly focused on solving problems and improving quality of life.  It is driven by curiosity, new frontiers, and prosperity.  From this city have come simple yet revolutionary technologies that unlock billions in dormant assets like extra bedrooms, apartments, and cars.  Customers love them.  Investors love them.  And the city can be proud of the world-changing impact made by the companies headquartered there.

There is another city much different.  This city puts up barriers and blockades to keep bright and talented people out.  It proposes solutions to problems that don’t exist.  You can find demagogues and petty tyrants working 9-5 on everything from grocery bag taxes to restrictions on tree branches.  In the past few decades alone the figureheads of this city have managed to take record amounts of money from citizens and demand record levels of compliance with confusing rules and regulations.  They’ve taken untold creative power out of every citizen’s efforts and resources out of their pockets.

This city is always looking backward and downward.  It is relentlessly focused on creating new conflicts and categorizing everyone’s relative quality of life.  It is driven by fear, doubt, and preservation of the past.  From this city have come complex and confounding ordinances that strangle active assets and reduce quality of life.  Customers have no choice.  Investors can’t divest.  And the city can take credit for world-changing companies that have relocated to other cities to escape the Leviathan.

Both cities are the same place.  In this case, San Francisco.  But many cities share the same fate.  The citizens are the same.  Yet they live in two spheres simultaneously and the institutions and incentives in those spheres are so drastically different you can barely recognize the actors in each as the same people.

Make no mistake, they are the same people.  It’s not that some people are peaceful, productive producers and consumers and some people are meddling petty tyrants.  It’s that the same person behaves in both ways, depending upon the incentives and institutions.  The political man (as in mankind) is a barbarous, tribalistic busybody.  The market man is an inventive, curious soul.

I’ll be sharing a specific recent example of this split-personality disorder and what leads to the contrasting behaviors in the two spheres in an upcoming piece for The Freeman.  Stay tuned.

Update: Here’s Part 2.

The Futility of Reform

Don’t run for class president.  Don’t go to HOA meetings.  Don’t join a committee.  Don’t get involved in political campaigns.

All of these activities are about reform.  Get into the institution, play by its rules, and try to make it behave differently than it wants to.

Forget this approach.  It sucks.  Here are four reasons why.

It makes you less happy

Have you ever been to a town hall meeting?  Life’s too short to endure such horrors.  The worst life to live is a boring one.  The machinations of every political institution are stale and boring and full of self-serious processes, procedures, and practitioners.  Your every moment is too valuable to suffer through it.  It’s inhumane.  If Roberts Rules of Order are relevant to any effort you’re involved in, get out and go build something new.

You can’t change the game by playing

Political institutions do one thing best: restrict individual fun and freedom.  It’s natural to want to reduce the role of these rule-happy entities.  But you can’t win playing by their rules.  You can’t vote your way to a system where votes no longer curtail progress.

Trying to reduce the role of the state by engaging in politics is like trying to put a casino out of business by playing blackjack there.  “Oh, I have it figured out.  I’ll beat the house!”  No.  You won’t.  They want you to think that.  They want you to keep playing.  Abiding by house rules is no way to protest or change them.  Especially when the house gets a little richer every time you do.

If you don’t want the casino to keep luring people in don’t go in yourself.  Build something better that people want to go to instead.

Progress always comes from without

Political institutions are reactive.  They wait until the world forces them and then they change.  If humanity is a car these institutions are the brakes, able to stop progress but never create it.  If you want to get to a new destination you need the accelerator.

Accelerators are new ideas and products and services that forge ahead, paying no mind to the consensus-seeking bureaucrats nested in the status quo.  Accelerators don’t care about argument, nor protest.  They care about creation.  They build the world they want to live in instead of hoping to prevent its decay.

There is no permanence

The great thing about innovation is that it only needs to happen once.  That painful, gruelling, child-birth like experience of the creative act or eureka moment is born out of imagination, hard work, and courage.  If the result is of any value to the world it lasts forever and serves as the stepping stone to still greater innovations.

The wheel was invented once.  No one has to re-invent it.  It’s world-improving powers are permanent and irreversible.

Any apparent victory within a political structure is fleeting by definition and design.  You align all the powers and elites and interests just so after years of butt-numbing meetings and pompous proclamations from people you’d never want to have a beer with but now you must woo and coddle.  You have your mandate or constituency or whatever other serious sounding label you slap on the gaggle of interests vying for a win within the house rules.  You get your way.  Hooray!

Until the next month or year or election cycle when the new interests group outmaneuvers you and the tables turn in an instant.  Everything you created in your coalition vanishes, along with all the money you convinced people to throw at it.  The same tiny sliver of ground must be re-won, each time as if from scratch.  Only then do you realize that broader social forces created by the outsiders accelerating humanity are the master, not the servant, to these stale political institutions that apply their rusty brakes against all odds.

Go out and build something

Build something instead.  Exit.  Go your own way.  Forget the suits and speeches and posturing and canvassing and internal climbing and deal-making.  Go build your wildest dream.  Imagine and create things that excite you.  Move to a place that doesn’t suck.  Create a job that’s not boring.  Live a life you want to live.

Don’t wait for the world to change or beg for permission to let it evolve.  Go change your own world.  The rest will follow.

Entrepreneurship Needs the Right Context

Entrepreneurship is really sexy right now.  Startup founders are like rock stars and you can’t go a day without seeing articles about them.  As far as it goes, I welcome this trend.  Entrepreneurship, as J.B. Say might define it, is the act of moving resources from lower to higher valued uses, or more concretely, creating a new process or product to solve old problems in innovative ways.  This seems a pretty good thing to glorify, at least compared with some other superficial traits that get a lot of attention.

Still, if entrepreneurship is praised across the board, regardless of the context, bad things can happen.

Absent competition and markets, being entrepreneurial has no value.  In fact, it can destroy value if channeled into the political process.  Political entrepreneurs find new ways to access resources first taken from others by force (taxation), and therefore do not create wealth.  They shift existing wealth around with no value-add, because the profit/loss signals are short-circuited.  Furthermore, they divert resources from productive activity to lobbying, currying favor, or massive projects with populist appeal but no market value.

Just about any entrepreneurial endeavor with the words “green” or “sustainable” has a high likelihood of being a fraudulent political game rather than genuine value creation.  The web of grants and subsidies and tax incentives and price supports and mandates in this industry make it all but impossible to identify real value creation as distinct from political shenanigans.  There are a great many media friendly entrepreneurs who chase government dollars instead of private investor or customer dollars, which are the real indicator of value creation.

Furthermore, all the buzz about entrepreneurship has given tech founders a huge platform from which to weigh in on a great many other issues.  Many people assume anyone smart enough to build a great app or billion dollar company could improve public policy.  The problem is that policy doesn’t get debated and implemented in a startup environment, but a monopolized, violence-backed, and fundamentally warped institution with all the wrong incentives.  The technocratic desire many startup types have to make gov’t more like a Silicon Valley company is what Hayek might call the fatal conceit.  It won’t work.  “If only smart people would control all the resources (and the guns that seize them) we’d make public infrastructure flawless!”  This kind of thinking is more dangerous, even if more noble on its face, than political actors openly seeking their own enrichment and not trying to solve grand problems with central plans.

The same thing happened in the industrial era.  Titans like Vanderbilt, Rockefeller, Morgan, and Carnegie were heroes because of their amazing success at improving the world through entrepreneurial action in the market.  When they turned their attention to politics, Gilded Age entrepreneurs built up a horrific behemoth of graft and monopoly that only slowed progress.

In a free or mostly free market entrepreneurs are the greatest force for good the world has ever known.  More than any amount of philanthropy or good intentions.  Outside the market context there is nothing inherently noble about entrepreneurship, and when directed to the political process it can be downright destructive.

How Change Happens – Higher Ed. Edition

The current higher education model is flawed.  If we’re serious about changing it, first we need to get serious about understanding how social change happens.  Intentions and action are not enough to bring about desired ends.  We need an understanding of the causal relationships involved in order to effectively bring about change.

The great truth that flies in the face of civics textbooks and popular myth is that politics is not the source of social change.  It’s more like the last in a line of indicators of cultural shifts that have already occurred.  Politicians and the policies they create only change after the new approach is sufficiently beneficial to the right interests, and sufficiently tolerable to the public at large to help, or at least not harm, political careers.  Of course some politicians guess wrong and suffer accordingly, but by and large the political marketplace tends toward preservation of the status quo until a new direction is imperative for survival.

An entire, and entirely fascinating, branch of political economy called Public Choice Theory examines the incentives at work in the political marketplace in depth, and I highly encourage anyone attracted to political action to gain a working knowledge of this field.  It reveals, in short, that incentives baked into the democratic system create and perpetuate policies that are bad for the public at large, and good for particular concentrated interests.  What Public Choice has a difficult time accounting for is the role of changing beliefs.  There are countless policies that, based purely on the incentives of various interests, ought to be in place but are not, or vice versa.  Some things are simply out of bounds, no matter how much a particular group might benefit and be willing to lobby, because the general public finds them unacceptable.

Contrary to the seemingly ironclad rule of interest driven politics, public beliefs can and do change, and dramatically sometimes, putting parameters around the area within which political actors can ply their trade.  Slavery is a striking example.  At one point, it would’ve been hard to get elected, at least in some areas, if you publicly supported abolition.  Not too many decades later, it’s unthinkable to get elected anywhere if you’ve ever even joked about supporting slavery.  There is certainly a complex relationship between changing economic incentives and public beliefs, but it is undeniable that the about-face on the ethics of slavery was more than a mere shift in power among competing interests.  What most of the public found tolerable they now find reprehensible.

Our institutions are formed by incentives, and incentives are constrained by beliefs.  That makes the beliefs of the public the ultimate key to change.  Smaller changes might occur within the window of things already publicly acceptable, but major change requires a shift in that window.  How to change those beliefs?  There are two primary drivers, both of which feed each other; ideas and experiences.

Ideas are the raw data that form beliefs.  If you accept the idea that minimum wage laws make lower skilled individuals less employable, and you accept the idea that a society with fewer unemployed persons is desirable, then you will have the belief that minimum wage laws are bad.  If, on the other hand, you’ve never really thought about the economics behind minimum wage at all, but your low skilled neighbor lost his job when minimum wage increased, that experience might also cause you to believe minimum wage laws are bad.

I spent a good part of my life focusing entirely on disseminating ideas as a way of changing belief.  It was fulfilling and, I think, valuable work.  But it wasn’t until relatively recently that I began to understand the immense value of experience as a vital second prong when it comes to changing beliefs and the world.

Consider the difficulty of convincing your mother that the New York City taxi cartel is inefficient or immoral.  It requires a great deal of economic theory or philosophizing about rights and coercion.  Your mom might have other things she enjoys more than reading books on these subjects.  Even if you convince her, her newfound belief will probably barely register among things she cares about.  Sure, taxis aren’t the greatest.  So what?  She’s never had that bad an experience.  Even if a policy change to end the cartel were possible, your mom mighn’t pay any attention, or she may be concerned about what the new world without cartels would look like in practice.

Now consider recommending your mom use Uber on her next trip in to Manhattan.  She uses it, likes it, and becomes a regular customer.  She may be completely ignorant of the current cab cartel and the problems with it, but she’s now a believer in an alternative system.  If Uber comes under attack from vested interests, she’ll defend it.  If the chance to end the cartel comes up, she won’t fear because she already knows what the world looks like without it.  She can’t easily be convinced out of her experience.

It is for this reason that dictatorial countries not only ban literature that propagates new ideas, but also goods and services that compete with government monopolies and let people experience something better.  The Soviet Union feared blue jeans, jazz, and Marlboro cigarettes as much as free market textbooks.

If we want to break out of the educational rut it requires new ideas and new experiences.  We mustn’t only talk about new approaches, we must build alternatives.  The best part is, you don’t have to wait on anyone.  You can take your own path right now, and by so doing not only improve your life, but serve as an example to others of what’s possible outside the status quo.  Educational entrepreneurs, not just intellectuals, will change the hidebound approach to education.  It’s already happening.

While policymakers, pundits, professors, and provosts squabble about the future of higher education and jockey to secure their position, entrepreneurs are busy creating and delivering alternatives across the globe.  The educational consumer is enjoying new experiences and getting new ideas about education in the process.  The old guard can argue any which way they like, but at the end of the day they’ll have to prove more valuable to the learner than the myriad new options.  All the protections and advantages in the world can’t stop competition now.  Technology has helped break it wide open.


Excerpted from The Future of School.

Things I Care Deeply About That Cannot Be Changed Through Law

My heart breaks over the knowledge that more than a million abortions occur annually in the US alone.  Yet I do not believe changes in the legality of the practice are the best way to improve the situation.

Let me state at the outset that the entire issue of the morality abortion comes down to one thing only, and that is whether or not one believes that a fetus is a human life, and at what point it becomes one.  I’ve never met someone who believes that killing an innocent child is moral.  Yet a great many people believe that abortion is moral.  This does not mean they are evil or unprincipled.  They believe that a fetus is not yet a human.  I do not attempt here or anywhere else to convince people otherwise.  I don’t pretend to have knowledge of some clear-cut point in the biological process when a fetus becomes a human.  I am only writing about why I, as someone who does believe a fetus from the earliest stages is a human life, do not believe that outlawing the practice of abortion is the best thing to advocate.

In other words I believe abortion is a tragic act, but not all tragedies are best reduced through law.

Government Failure

I am skeptical of the ability of governments to enforce laws in general, but especially those with which a huge part of the population disagrees.  Even laws most people agree on, like those against drunk driving, are enforced poorly and often with more hassle and harassment of innocents than actual curbing the activities of the perpetrators.  Anti-abortion laws do not seem to me a likely way to reduce the number of abortions significantly and they do seem likely to produce a great many other ill-effects.  Illegal abortions that pose a greater risk to the mother would boom, and entire black markets around them.  Attempts at enforcement would doubtless cost billions and open up a bevy of privacy violating medical and personal interventions affecting millions of people who were not even attempting to abort.

But there’s another thing.  For those who feel this is a deeply moral issue, the practical aspect is perhaps less important than the ethical one.  Many people believe that consumption of alcohol is immoral, yet even they will admit that the prohibition era did nothing to improve the moral fiber of individual Americans but had the opposite effect.  AA and rehab programs are far more effective at getting to the core of alcohol related problems.

So if I believe abortion to be a tragic ending of a beautiful human life, what kinds of activities do I think might reduce it?

Keep Innovating

Abortions in the US have dropped every year for some time now.  I suspect the main reason is myriad forms of birth control are better, cheaper, and more accessible.  No one wants to abort.  Those who do would prefer to not have gotten pregnant in the first place.  Where there is a need in a free market, there is an incentive to meet it.  Companies big and small have continued to produce more, better, and cheaper technologies for preventing unwanted pregnancies.  This will continue, and could happen even more if regulatory barriers were eliminated and markets freed more generally.

Open Up Markets in Adoption

Currently, those who want to adopt have to pay for it.  In this sense, there already is a market for children without parents.  The problem is it is illegal for the birth-parents to receive this money.  Pregnancy and labor is emotionally, mentally, and physically taxing.  It reduces ability to earn money and increases risk of health problems.  It’s a full-time job.  Yet women with unwanted pregnancies who don’t feel comfortable ending them have no real way to make up for this cost.  Carrying a baby to term and having another couple adopt puts tremendous cost on the birth mother.  Removing the laws against payment to birth mothers would dramatically reduce the number of abortions.  Getting government agencies and regulations out of the adoption market altogether would do more still.

Imagine the power of pro-life activists and philanthropists if they channeled their energy and resources away from protest signs at clinics and towards funds to pay pregnant women to carry to term and choose adoption?  Many organizations do as much as they legally can in this direction today, but the legal and moral resistance most people have to open markets severely constrain this option.

Care and Support

I would venture to guess most women who abort do not do so easily or impulsively.  Regardless of their beliefs on the morality of it, it’s a hard decision.  A woman faced with this decision is likely to be pushed away by loud yelling about the immorality of abortion or attempts to make it illegal.  It is impossible to advocate making abortion illegal without putting mothers with unwanted pregnancies on the defensive.  They feel condemned and hated, which is not a recipe to get someone to reconsider.  Even the suggestion of judgement will push people into secrecy, where they are likely to suffer more during the process.

Those who are deeply moved and saddened by the act of abortion would do better to come alongside those with unwanted pregnancies and help them in a nonjudgmental way.  Offer emotional, spiritual, and material help without being pushy or manipulative.  This works best with someone you have established some kind of relationship with, and on a one-on-one level.  Yet organizational efforts could do the same (and many do).

Many might call this moral suasion.  I suppose it is in a way, but it is very difficult to convince someone that their idea of morality is wrong by simply telling them so.  The thing is, you don’t even need to convince someone that something is immoral if you can show them a better way.  Show a course of action that is better for them even given their current moral beliefs.  If they have an environment that won’t judge but will support them every step of the way, even offering to help with parenting or to adopt the child, the chances of an abortion will decrease.

The Nirvana Fallacy

There are a great many horrible things in the world.  Murder, theft, sickness, poverty.  It’s easy to get righteous and proclaim support for laws and institutions that do not tolerate these things.  Such posturing is pretty empty though, because there is no system or law that can eliminate them.  The important question is not, “Which system is right?”, because we’d all choose perfection.  The important question is “Which of the possible systems is preferable?”  It is not enough to condemn the status quo compared to an imaginary world where none of the things you dislike occur.  When condemning the status quo it behooves us to ask, “Compared to what?”

I think a change in abortion laws is a distraction from better methods to reduce the practice.  Pro-life advocates, to the extent they outsource their energy to lobbying and politics, feel good enough about their efforts to slack in other, more practical ways that do more.  What happens if abortion is made illegal?  If the pattern follows similar policy battles the winning side will feel really good about themselves and probably do less of the more valuable kind of work.  Think of those who fight for government efforts to end poverty and the way it crowds out more effective private efforts.

The Takeaway

I don’t normally talk or write about abortion, but I think it’s an important example of how even things that some find fundamentally wrong are not always best met with the ham-handed approach of policy.  Our tendency to idolize law as a means for achieving our ends, no matter how moral they might be, is to our detriment.

If You Did Vote, Don’t Complain

Sometimes people say, “If you didn’t vote, don’t complain.”  Nonsense.  Everyone can complain.  Complaining about pompous politicians and oppressive regulations doesn’t require participation in popularity lotteries.  In fact, if one were to stipulate who has less reason to complain, it would be those who do vote, not those who ignore the charade.

To the extent that voting is a kind of ascent to the political process, those who do it are implicitly agreeing to abide by the outcome.  I don’t really think voters can’t complain or that voting means you submit to any outcome of politics, but for many who believe in the process, the ritual is an attempt to cleanse oneself of guilt.  Your show of support for thug A means you can feel self-righteous when nearly identical thug B advocates bad things.  Yet it’s the process, the institutional setting itself not those elected within it, that creates the bad things.

Voting is not the way to cleanse yourself from guilt or attempt to achieve social objectives.  Many people argue that voting shows you are civic-minded and highly engaged.  This is a lot of horse manure.  Voting makes you less engaged, less humane, less civic-minded, and less effective at creating the kind of world you want to live in.  There are three primary reasons voting is problematic:

1) Sometimes it works.  If your candidate wins and implements the policy you like, you might feel good because now people will be told to do things the way you prefer.  But consider what this really means.  It means violence.  It means your preferred social change is being generated by force.  That’s an ugly reality any decent person should want to distance themselves from.  If you can’t get there peacefully, maybe you shouldn’t try to get there at all.

2) Whether or not it works, it has side-effects.  If your person or policy wins or loses, whatever political ploys are put into practice have myriad deleterious effects on the world.  Well-meaning minimum wage laws make the poor less employable.  Well-meaning environmental laws encourage waste, fraud, abuse, and price the poor out of many markets.  The list goes on.  You probably don’t know enough about the complex world to know the unintended consequences of top-down enforcement of any policy.  Let the more dynamic, adaptable, open social process figure out the trade-offs instead of a zero-sum either/or ballot box.

3) It reduces the incentive to engage in civil society.  When you vote for something you relieve the pressure to do something more meaningful.  Voting offers just enough satiation for your heart and mind so you can return to your regularly scheduled programming.  It makes people self-righteous and annoying.  It incentivizes signalling you care instead of figuring out how to really care enough to bring about change.  It turns friends into enemies.  It saps creativity by offering a brute, ham-fisted quick-fix.  If you get a bunch of kids together and they disagree about toys or rules of a game they’re less likely to find a creative solution if you also give them a magic authority hat that anyone who wins a vote can wear, thereby conferring the power to dictate all rules and dole out punishments and favors.  Voting makes us little barbarians.

Don’t let people tell you a good citizen must vote.  Quite the opposite.  Abstain, and get busy building your own life and world in a positive, productive, cooperative, and civilized manner.

Science Doesn’t Exist

I sometimes hear people say things like, “If science supports X policy, it should be enacted.”  Hiding behind the word science for your moral or political beliefs is a bad idea, because science doesn’t exist as something that can be accountable or take responsibility.

Of course there is a method of inquiry called the scientific method.  It is particularly useful in the study of physical objects, forces, and relationships – what we call the physical sciences.  But science doesn’t say anything, and it certainly can’t do or enforce anything.  Science isn’t a person with positions on issues or an ability to clearly articulate and act on them.  It’s a tool and a way of thinking.  It’s a process that helps people test and falsify and eliminate possibilities and make better theories.

Even if smart people using the scientific process arrive at a theory about the physical world and say they believe certain policies should be enacted, it’s not a trump card to then say that science demands legal action.  Science can’t demand anything.  Scientists can demand legal action, but they almost always do so based on a romanticized view of the political process.

Putting aside the fact that there is no such thing as “settled” science – indeed, it is an open and ongoing process, not a body of accumulating, unchanging facts – even when research reveals certain relationships it does not follow that policies imagined by scientists should be enacted.  Political-made law is not like the laws of science.  People with incentives having nothing to do with the facts or the outcome must posture and pontificate and make deals before passage.  The end result only passes if it sates the appetites of enough rent-seeking interests, regardless of whether it resembles what high-minded scientists imagined.  Enforcement is even worse.  Carried out by unaccountable armies of bureaucrats (some armed, all dangerous), laws are a cudgel used selectively by those in power to further cement it.

When you hear people loudly demanding political action based on ‘settled science’ don’t give them a pass.  If a theory about the physical world is really sound, there’s a built-in incentive to adapt to it without resorting to force.  It may happen imperfectly and slower than some experts would like, but ten times out of ten I’d trust the market process more than the political one to discover the best trade-offs.

Term Limits as Humanitarianism

I don’t think term limits reduce government corruption or largesse. I don’t think they stop bad legislation or promote good. I’ve seen them in action, and they do alter the interests, but things quickly adjust and the average Joe and his freedom are no safer. Ultimately, no rule changes or tweaks can stop government oppression. The only real solution is for markets, not states, to provide social solutions.

Yet I’m a big fan of term limits nonetheless.

As much as I hate to admit it, politicians are people too. As a fellow human, I do not wish ill upon them. Probably the worst thing that can happen to a person is the loss of their soul; their dignity; there very humanity. This is worse than death or injury, and it is precisely what the political system does to politicians.

No matter how well intentioned, they face rigged choices every day that force them to be a backstabbing jerk to all their peers, or fudge a little on their principles. No one can resist this forever. To cope, they create elaborate justificatory narratives, and separate their political actions from their sense of morality or self. Even when you’ve seen the evil of Mordor, it’s hard to throw the ring in the fire.

The first few years in office, newly minted politicians are mostly being used, or patted on the head like kids at their first ball game. After three or four, they start to learn how to get stuff. Five or six and they’re almost gone for good – barely recognizable as the people they once were. Always “on”, and not even knowing what real people behave like. At this stage, a few years out of the system and they may still regain most of their former humanity. The detox is tough, but possible. Six or more years and all hope is lost.

Term limits save souls.

Interview with a Rabble-Rouser: Leon Drolet

Some of the most fascinating people and ideas are in our immediate circle of acquaintances.  I have enjoyed interviewing some of my friends for the blog, and I’ve learned interesting things by asking questions I don’t typically ask of people I already know.

Today’s interview is with my good friend Leon Drolet.  I worked for Leon many years ago in the state legislature, and it was, in part, his influence that helped turn me away from politics and to what I think is the more productive world of ideas.

Leon is one of the most honest, entertaining, and sometimes shocking individuals I know.  The last thing his self-proclaimed giant ego needs is more praise, but I’d be lying if I didn’t say he has influenced me in important ways.  He likes to joke that he takes credit for everything, but in my case, he is due some credit for some successes I’ve had.  Of course, I reserve the right to blame him for all of my failures as well.

IMM: I’ve described you as a rabble-rouser because, frankly, I don’t really know what else to call you. What do you say when people ask what you do?

LD: I usually tell people that I’m not sure what I do, but “it has something to do with ‘liberty’, I think”. My goal is to advance liberty in all ways I can be effective at it. Those ways are varied: often political, sometimes educational. Sometimes I write op-eds and engage in media interviews, sometimes I run for political office (I’ve been elected six times to state and local office). Sometimes I create public events like rallies and grassroots groups, sometimes I work to change laws and state constitutions through petition campaigns and elections. Sometimes I assist college students who want to learn more about libertarian ideas, sometimes I organize forums for libertarian networking. Sometimes I work on projects that engage the public on a specific libertarian concept – like civil rights being for individuals instead of for identity groups.  How can I describe all of the above in a simple sentence? So, I don’t – it is more fun to tell people that I do not know what I do.

IMM: Are you doing what you want to do?

LD: I try to avoid things I don’t want to do.

IMM: What is the theme that runs through your various activities and employments?  What is your goal?

LD: My goal is to find and implement ways for libertarian concepts to gain wider recognition and appreciation in society. And to have fun doing it. I’m not interested in drudgery, so I pursue that which I love in fun and interesting ways. Ideally, I would create and strategize and showboat and laugh through each liberty-advancing venture, but I have to do some less-interesting logistical and bureaucratic execution work. It would be nice to have staff to do the boring stuff.

IMM: You’ve been in and around the political game quite a bit, yet I know few people as dismissive of the importance of politicians and ready to downplay the role of politics in changing the world.  Is this a contradiction?

LD: I hope so. Oscar Wilde said, “The well bred contradict other people. The wise contradict themselves.” and I need all the advice about appearing wise that I can get. I do political work because I lack skills more useful to society. Before I learned how social change really happens, I thought political change was key. So I invested in learning political campaign skills: how to best utilize resources in election campaigns, how to target voters and hone messages, how to engage others in the political process, etc. Those are among my skills now, for better or for worse.

IMM: What are some common misconceptions about politics?  What would people be surprised to know?

LD: People think politicians matter – and to prove it, they point to one or two politicians they think have mattered. While there are exceptions, 95% of elected officials don’t matter and the world would hardly change had they never been elected. Politicians’ decisions are molded by many factors around them. If you learn to see the forces that create a politician, you can predict what they will do 95% of the time. If you learn to affect the factors influencing politicians, you can steer a great many politicians. This is far more effective than trying to elect “good” politicians one at a time. “Good” politicians will still do bad things if the incentives aren’t right. Change the incentives.

IMM: You have a habit of making light of everything. There never seems a bad time to joke for you. Is this a conscious approach to life, or just the way you’re wired?

LD: Life is too precious to be bored and humor, especially the absolute worst cringe-inducing humor, is rarely boring.

IMM: Most public figures work hard to keep up an unoffensive image. You love being in the public eye, yet you don’t really sugar coat your radical ideas and sometimes unserious approach to life. How have you been able to get away with it?

LD: Tell people what you really believe and, if it is unorthodox, use humor. Especially self-deprecating humor. People appreciate humility and the ability to recognize (and to put into approachable context or ‘frame’) one’s own relatively less popular positions on issues or ideas. People respect someone, and engage them on their ideas, if the person is consistent and fun and humble. Of course, I am the most humble person the world has ever seen…

IMM: Can you sum up your philosophy?

LD: Customize life to fit your values to the maximum extent possible. Love and exalt that which is truly beautiful. Die proud of the life you led.

IMM: Have you always seen the world this way, or was it a journey?  Did you come by your beliefs easily, or with some difficulty?

LD: Like everyone, I evolved. The most important step in that evolution was recognizing that discovering truth is the highest value, and that logic and reason are the most reliable avenues to discover truth. Being able to recognize my biases and accept responsibility and be aware of my many deep flaws are the most difficult parts of my journey.

IMM: What kind of legacy do you want to leave?

LD: I want society to be a freer place because I have lived on Earth. My ego demands that my life have mattered – that people will be better off than had I not been born. I want to be proud of my life and to have enjoyed it greatly.

A Few Quotes

On politics and government

“Aristotle said that some people were only fit to be slaves. I do not contradict him. But I reject slavery because I see no men fit to be masters.” – C.S. Lewis

“I am really sorry to see my Countrymen trouble themselves about Politics. If Men were Wise the Most arbitrary Princes could not hurt them. If they are not Wise the Freest Government is compelled to be a Tyranny. Princes appear to me to be Fools. Houses of Commons & Houses of Lords appear to me to be fools, they seem to me to be something Else besides Human Life.” – William Blake

“Politics is a dirty business, a ruse, an ideological cul-de-sac, a vast looter of intellectual and financial resources, a lie that corrupts, a deceiver, a means of unleashing vast evil in the world of the most unexpected and undetected sort and the greatest diverter of human productivity ever concocted by those who do not believe in authentic social and economic progress.” – Jeffrey Tucker

“Sed quis custodiet ipsos custodes?” – Juvenal

On tyranny

“Of all tyrannies, a tyranny exercised for the good of its victims may be the most oppressive.[…] those who torment us for our own good will torment us without end for they do so with the approval of their own conscience. They may be more likely to go to Heaven yet at the same time likelier to make a Hell of earth.” – C. S. Lewis

“The struggle for freedom is ultimately not resistance to autocrats or oligarchs but resistance to the despotism of public opinion.” – Ludwig von Mises

“As long as the public identifies order with law, it will believe that an orderly society is impossible without the law the state provides. And as long as the public believes this, it will continue to support the state almost without regard to how oppressive it may become.” – John Hasnas

“I have sworn upon the altar of God, eternal hostility against every form of tyranny over the mind of man” – Thomas Jefferson

On freedom

“And now that the legislators and do-gooders have so futilely inflicted so many systems upon society, may they finally end where they should have begun: May they reject all systems, and try liberty; for liberty is an acknowledgment of faith in God and His works.” – Frederic Bastiat

“Every man must have freedom, must have the scope to form, test, and act upon his own choices, for any sort of development of his own personality to take place. He must, in short, be free in order that he may be fully human.” – Murray Rothbard

“I freed thousands of slaves. I could have freed thousands more, if they had known they were slaves” – Harriet Tubman

“The only way to deal with an unfree world is to become so absolutely free that your very existence is an act of rebellion” – Albert Camus

Life Inside the Bubble

I used to work in the state legislature.  There was an insider political newspaper that all the lawmakers, lobbyists, journalists, and staff read every day.  Among other tidbits, it included a “quote of the day” from the goings on the day before.  Every morning, the first thing every member of the political class did was look to see who got quote of the day – or more accurately, if they got quote of the day.  It was a big deal.  Except that it was not a big deal at all to anyone outside the political bubble.

Tons of other gossip and updates filled the newsletter, and every bit was important to the weirdly sheltered state political circuit.  All the buzz in this world was about this world.  “Can you believe the committee chair held all the members there until midnight?”.  “Do you think she’ll have a primary challenger after those comments about teachers unions?”  The fate of the state hinged on every detail according to the people involved.

Of course nothing of the sort was true.  The petty bickering, posturing, and drama had almost no bearing on the world outside the bubble.  It was like a reality TV show, where every little alliance is a big deal in the context of the show, but meaningless to the world outside the artificial construct of the set.  Occasionally, politicos would get crude reminders of this fact.  They would proudly set up meet and greet hours in their districts so the people could come before them and present their troubles.  They assumed this kind of access was demanded by their constituents, and would be greatly appreciated.  But no one came, save for a few rather senile members of society with too much time on their hands.  Part of the reason was that no one knew who their state representative was – most didn’t even know they had one.

The shock of reality was severe for lawmakers who had been in the bubble for many a week and emerged to find that no one knew their name or what bills they introduced.  No one even knew that they had made quote of the day last week!  In the bubble, they were important.  Every lobbyist, journalist and staffer knew their name and their favorite drink.  They were called “Honorable”.  But outside the bubble, they were just some guy wearing a bad suit and talking about boring things.

One particularly poignant reminder of the contrast between life in and out of the bubble took place at a basketball game.  I was in a luxury box with my boss who was a then well-connected lawmaker.  Food and drinks were free, and the lobbyists who’d provided the tickets were cheerfully chatting us up and flattering us.  I looked across the court to the other side of the stadium.  There in the cheap seats, all by himself, was a rather dejected looking fellow.  It was the former governor.  My boss noticed him too, and seemed a little troubled.  He leaned over and said, “That’s good for me to see.  I sometimes forget that, when I’m term-limited out next year, that will be me, not this.”  A rare moment of foresight for someone in the bubble.

It’s easy (and quite fun!) to point out the absurdities and perversions of the artifice of politics.  But there’s a broader lesson as well.  We all have bubbles.  We have them for good reason and they serve a purpose.  We find people and places we identify with and invest ourselves there.  In these bubbles, we are interesting to our friends, and our shared goals are the most important thing in the world.  In these bubbles, we belong.  That’s a good thing.  It’s good to have a social circle that cares about you and shares your worldview.  It can also create problems if you never step out.

It’s good to move beyond the bubble from time to time.  You gain perspective.  You stay humble.  You realize that all the debates you had in the bubble about various interpretations of that world-changing idea don’t matter to the outside world.  They don’t even know the idea exists in the first place.  You can be famous in your bubble, but it doesn’t mean you’re famous anywhere else.  You need to be reminded of this.

Find your niches, make your friends, dive in, get connected.  You need it.  But step out of your circles as well, into the great unknown where you are just another person.  You need it.  It’s useful to maintain a firm belief and a tacit understanding of two facts at the same time: you are a really big deal, and you are nothing.

Happy Easter

Whether or not you follow any of the various religions that celebrate Easter, or other celebrations of rebirth and new life this time of year, there is beauty and power in the symbols that accompany the season.  The emergence from winter’s death and dormancy; the wild, erratic, uneven surge of growth; the sights and sounds and smells are impossible to ignore.  Breath in the Spring air, let it fill your lungs, and contemplate the power of life, creativity and change over death, repression and stasis.

If you are so inclined, enjoy this post about the Christian tradition around this holiday, and what it has to remind about the life-giving power of freedom vs. the violence of political power.